Stick figure and baby

Who holds you? by Bianca Hansen-Hamburger (Counselling Psychologist)

When navigating separation or divorce one is usually offered a range of practical advice; how long it will take to get divorced, how much it costs to get divorced, asset division, statistics on divorce, never mind the plethora of advice and statistics offered up on the impact of divorce on children. However, when trying to unravel ones own knot of emotion with respect to the loss of not only a partner, but also way of life, friends, and family, the compounded feelings of anger, embarrassment and/or shame -there is little real person-to-person help available. Accordingly, and without the emotional guidance, there seem to be two main reactions. Either we avoid others whilst we try to navigate the loneliness and pain of divorce, or others avoid us due to their own discomfort with regard to the demise of marriage. Both need real emotional guidance to process. We have attorneys for the practicalities of the divorce process, child psychologists to assist children to make sense of their own emotional and psychological turmoil, however, who is holding you?

In psychology we speak of a ‘holding environment’ – it is a term that is usually employed when discussing the developing child.  A ‘holding environment’ is one that provides a nurturing milieu, it speaks to the parent’s ability to soothe, comfort and be attentive to their infants needs. Idyllically, the parent reflects back to the child their worth and value, responding to the child’s needs appropriately.  However, if the parent themself is not ‘held’ by another, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to ‘hold their infant’.

In divorce, whether a parent or not, there is frequently a lack of such responsivity towards the divorcee, often termed empathic failure. Too often it is close friends or family used for support. Frequently these parties berate previous spouses, degrading the parents of our children and shutting down the space for one to explore their feelings of love and loss. We live in a fast-moving, hard-edged world of seemingly moral absolutes. We are expected to be perfect –as a career person, as a parent, as a partner and as a resilient survivor of divorce. Friends and family frequently convey a sense of “come on get over it, grieve it, do it fast and move on!”

Importantly, working through the adversity of separation and divorce in a healthy manner, helps you model healthy coping skills for not only children involved, but also others who move through or are also affected by divorce. Additionally, you are modelling ‘living the truth’. For too many families, the truth is swept under the carpet, “we don’t discuss such things”, and marriages are sustained “for the sake of the children.” What are you conveying to your child (and yourself) about marriage in such cases? Marriage is lonely; marriage is cold; your spouse is a person to be tolerated. By being honest about divorce and by acknowledging your own pain and growing from it allows you to lead an authentic life and teach those around you the same qualities.

For the most part people don’t resist change, they resist loss and this is what navigating divorce is about. Communicating is healthy, but talking to the right individual is imperative. The psychotherapeutic relationship provides the holding environment that permits the divorcee to express his or her feelings in an objective, neutral environment where the therapist has no link to or relationship with the ex-spouse. It is within the safety of the therapeutic relationship one is able to reflect on their love, anger, rage, pain, fears and display raw emotions that others are unable to hold. However, it is not only an environment where one is able to unravel their emotional grief, but also a space where the therapist is able to reflect back to the individual their worth and value and respond to the persons needs. The ‘holding environment’ is almost like your first day of school, it is going to be uncomfortable, but there will be someone there to help you when you feel overwhelmed, there is someone there to ensure you do not get lost. And slowly you gain your confidence and your independence until your fears fade, when you look forward to life, when you experience moments of contentment and realize that you are stronger than you thought you were. It is possible to consider coming out of divorce with ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ and whilst this invariably may be the case, with time the experience can become one of ‘post-traumatic growth’. Within the therapeutic relationship one is able to redefine and rediscover who they are, reflect on his or her strengths and establish areas of growth within themselves.

Bianca Hansen-Hamburger

Counselling Psychologist

071 488 7080


  1. Annemarie

    Great article. You raise so many important points.
    I am currently going through a divorce (not my first one) and I am devastated by the abruptness with which it happened, and the coldness and disdain with which my husband is treating me. It is was completely unexpected and I still don’t know why he left.
    One thing that hit me hard, besides the obvious shock and pain from my husband leaving without any warning, is my friends that are avoiding me. While I understand that they may feel embarrassed and do not know what to say, I really, really need them around me, especially as my son is far away and I do not have any other family.
    I also find the ‘just get the divorce over and done with and move on with your life’ attitude very insensitive. If one more person tells me ‘you are a beautiful woman,my ou will meet someone else’, I will probably punch them!
    A friend lose her husband a few months ago, and she has people around her all the time, I have no-one. Everyone is trying to help her, people expect me to just carry on with my life as if nothing has happened. No-one tells her to just move one and meet someone else, yet that is what I am expected to do.
    I am going for counseling at my church, as I need a more nurturing environment right now. Perhaps at a later stage I might feel up to more analytical things, but right now I can simply not deal with that

  2. Eswil

    Hi Annemarie,
    I have great sympathy with your situation. I also got divorced recently, 5 mnths ago, and without my friends support I would never have made it this far.
    It was my decision to get divorced after a 41 year marriage. It is not an easy road, but rhe peace in my heart is worth it.
    I wish I could be there to help you through this time as no one gives you flowers at this time when you need it so much. And to give you a hug when you need it.
    Will be thinking of you in my prayers.
    I believe that one day we will be healed again and see the light on the other side of divorce.
    Be strong and know that you are not alone.

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